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    High-Priced "Friends" Finale

    Who says you can't put a price on Friends-ship?

    NBC can and has: For just $2 million, the Peacock network is offering advertisers a 30-second spot during the much anticipated May 6 series finale of Friends.

    The rate is the highest ever charged for a sitcom, and it falls just short of the record $2.3 million average fee CBS charged for airtime during the 2004 Super Bowl.

    Of course, aside from a possible mention of Chandler's excised third nipple, this telecast isn't likely to produce such a controversy.

    According to the Wall Street Journal, advertisers like Allstate, Anheuser-Busch, General Motors, Hewlett-Packard and General Electric (NBC's parent corporation) have already signed up for pricey time slots, hoping that the burning national question (are Ross and Rachel finally hooking up again?) will be enough to lure the 40-50 million viewers media analysts predict will tune in as the show wraps up its 10-year run.

    "The people that will be there, the people who really care about the show, are unlikely to tune out during commercial breaks because they don't want to miss a second of it," media analyst Stacey Lynn Koerner told Reuters. "This is the highest of the high when you talk about buzz-worthy environments."

    Could NBC execs be more giddy with anticipation of their big payday?

    The network stands to net $30-$40 million for the hour-long finale, according to the Journal report, which might be a temporary salve for the big hit NBC's ad revenues will take with Friends and long-running Tuesday night sitcom Frasier leaving the airwaves.

    In its final year, pop-culture phenomenon Friends has averaged $473,500 per 30-second ad, making it the costliest prime-time spot for advertisers for two consecutive seasons. Meanwhile, the series rumored to take Friends' space in NBC's lineup next fall--Matt LeBlanc's Friends spinoff Joey--is unlikely to immediately replace those ad dollars.

    Ironically, though the Friends finale is expected to be one of the network's all-time biggest ad-revenue jackpots, the 50 million viewers NBC anticipates will hardly set a new record. The proliferation of cable networks, plus competition for viewers' attention from the Internet, has made advertisers, in effect, willing to pay much more for a much smaller audience.

    The 1998 finale of NBC's Seinfeld, for example, drew 76.2 million viewers (but, adjusted for inflation, only $1.72 million per 30-second ad), while the 1993 end of NBC's Cheers drew a whopping 80 million viewers (and about $840,000 per 30-second ad, according to the Journal). The all-time series finale champ: CBS' 1983 M*A*S*H climax, which pulled in 105.4 million viewers (and also about $840,000 per 30-second ad) and is still the most watched telecast of any series in tube history.

    "Media consumption is so much more fragmented that the opportunities to draw a large portion of the country at a single moment are few and far between," media buyer Tim Spengler told Reuters.

    The actual finale episode of Friends, which has ranked as the top-rated comedy of the season with an average of 20 million viewers, is the centerpiece of a Friends-themed night of programming on NBC. At 8 p.m., the network will unfurl an hour-long retrospective (i.e. clip show), followed by the finale at 9 p.m. and a late-night visit by the entire cast on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

    And for those wanting a piece of history, the Friends finale will be available on DVD just five days after it airs. According to Video Store magazine, the disc will sell for $14.97 and include bonus footage, the original series pilot and a music video of the Rembrandts' "I'll Be There for You" show theme.